Tennis's effectiveness comes in his authenticity. He acknowledges that he hasn't figured it all out and lacks the condescension that is common among career advice givers which makes him far superior to the Ask Amys and Dr. Phils of this world. His writers tend to be very thoughtful people as well: what many among them seem to be looking for is someone who can reason with them--perhaps dispel as irrational their worst fears--without looking down upon them. He tends not to give straight advice but rather to expound on the writer's quandry with a mix of life experience and general reflectiveness. In yesterday's column, he responded to a creative writing student who, in pursuing her dream, had become fundamentally discouraged of her writing abilities and of her old definition of success. This is where Tennis's column becomes therapy--though hopefully not schadenfreude--for me: in seeing that others are also reckoning with past decisions and trying to make new ones and are feeling a little shaky and unsatisfied all the while. In all of this, it is so valuable that Tennis does not blithely and reliably say "follow your dream" on the one hand or "don't risk it" on the other, that he does not proffer a right answer. Instead, he talks about his experience. His answer to the paralyzed MFA student:
Thank you for writing. I am glad you are going to finish the program. No matter what you decide to do later, it is good to finish the program and get your degree.
I went to graduate school in creative writing as an egotistical person. I was concerned with whether people thought I was brilliant.
This brilliance was a brittle thing, a bright, cold shell I had made in junior high to wear to school and around town like a gown of dazzling and invisible power to keep predators at bay; it was a fast-thinking thing, a mean, clever thing, a way to stay aloft and aloof. I took it with me when I left home. I used it to not learn anything.
But you get older and defeat forces you to learn things you didn't think you needed to know, or didn't want to learn or didn't think were important, or thought were beneath you.
Here is the big main thing I learned: My writing is not here to support me. I am here to support my writing.
How it came about was I endured some failure as a writer trying to make money as a writer, and had to work at other things for five years. During that time I wrote but not for money. I wrote on the subway, alone, in a notebook, sitting by myself in the crowd. I wrote to save myself.
It turned out that writing to save myself was the best way to write. Here is why, I think: Our writing is the voice of a person who is innocent, powerless and in need of protection; our writing is the voice of a person who needs to be heard as he or she really is. It is deep stuff is what I mean. And shocking as it is to say, the person who is writing this -- the person I am today -- is the kind of person toward whom I once would have leveled pitiless scorn.